Tiampati Leletit had heard tales of massive desert locust swarms darkening Kenya’s horizon. But when they hit his farm the devastation was all too real. They ate everything.
“I have never seen anything like this. When the swarms of locust invaded, they consumed everything and all the vegetation was gone. The livestock had nothing to eat,” says the 32-year-old. In January, he had 80 goats. Today he has four.
Only seasonal rains have brought brief respite, forcing the insects to leave temporarily. He does not know what to do next.
A Samburu herdsman, Leletit belongs to the semi-nomadic pastoralist community. Livestock are woven into the social fabric of life here; animals are an essential source of food, nutrition and financial security and the herders take great pride in their animals.
With a wife and four children to feed, after the first invasion he started growing leafy green vegetables and crops. But last week the locusts came back and ate them as well. Now he has been forced to send two children to live with his brother, and his four goats have moved in with a neighbour’s herd.
He is thinking of turning to illegal charcoal burning to make ends meet as he waits to harvest the crops he has just replanted – if they survive. “I don’t know what else I can do to support my family,” he says.
A three-hour drive north-east of Isiolo, the centre of the recent desert locust invasion, the terrain around his village in Samburu county is much like 80% of Kenya’s landscape: dry, ideal for grazing animals but reliant on rain for crops.
Kenya is experiencing its worst locust invasion for 70 years. The World Bank warns that regional locust swarms could swell current numbers 400-fold by June, causing livestock-related costs and damages of $8.5bn by the end of 2020. Pastoralists in Ethiopia, Sudan and Kenya will be worst hit.
Cyril Ferrand, the FAO’s resilience team leader for east Africa, says: “The generation we are combating now is the most damaging in terms of food security impact.”
About 20 million people are already severely food insecure in the region.
There is a direct correlation between livestock feed shortages and malnutrition in children under five, he says, adding that plans are under way to support the worst-hit communities with cash transfer schemes in June, when food and pasture will be scarcest.
The Covid-19 pandemic is exacerbating the problem. After hampering efforts to bring the locusts under control, the health crisis has the potential to stir conflict. That is something Josephine Ekiru, a Turkana pastoralist and peace-builder for the Northern Rangelands Trust, knows all about.
Economic insecurity caused by the pandemic is already fuelling pastoralist attacks, she says. “There will be an increase in resource-based conflict … people will be moving towards areas where there will be grass. We need to prepare for conflict.”
Erupe Lobun, a 40-year-old Turkana herder and father of 13 children, watches over an acacia-thorn cattle pen filled with baby goats. His home in Isiolo county was spared total devastation due to control efforts.
But he says his goats have become sick from the pesticide used to deter locusts. Some of the goats have bloated stomachs and can’t produce enough milk “because there’s not enough pasture”. It there is no milk, there will be nothing to eat, he says.
Ferrand said the FAO is investigating potential negative impacts of pesticides on biodiversity. The ones used are not specific to desert locusts and should evaporate after 24 hours. “It’s a very complex operation to be frank,” he says.
Efforts to make communities aware of spray operations so they can move animals may have “gaps”, he adds. “We have to be on board with that and we don’t consider the job done, we are still working on it.”
Part of the problem is that locusts move fast and often. Wind shifts their direction, with swarms of 40 million travelling up to 150km and eating 80 tonnes of vegetation daily.
Ambrose Ng’etich, who is managing FAO control operations for the vast areas of Samburu, Isiolo, Laikipia and Meru, has his work cut out. Each morning, as light falls across the plains, he sets out in a helicopter to track swarms.
“It’s mind-boggling how these [locusts] can be so destructive,” he says. “It gives you shivers.
“If [adults] are not spotted in time, they can lay eggs and take us back to square one. So, enhanced surveillance and treatment will be key.”
Like yellow specks of dust rising above the trees, a new swarm hovers over the plains.
Ng’etich and the helicopter captain note the coordinates, wait for a signal, then dispatch spray planes to destroy it. “It’s also about confirming [their location] so we don’t waste the resources we have,” he says.
The World Bank has distributed $13.7m in emergency funding to the Kenyan government to help tackle the swarms, and the FAO confirms that another $118m has been pledged to help with control efforts. But appeals for support like cash transfers for those facing food shortages next month are only 54% funded. The shortfall will be hard to find amid the global coronavirus pandemic.
Meanwhile, pastoralists such as Moses Lomooria, 34, from Isiolo county, are bracing for new enemies. Drought and disease are familiar, he says, and are slowly diminishing his herds. “This is just an additional burden. If the locusts feed on vegetation now, there will be no rain to bring it back until the end of the year.” The only thing he can do is wait.